THE BLOG
07/13/2006 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton Redux

I understand Clive's lament, but for veteran Clinton-watchers - and there are many here - there was plenty to chew on in Jim Fallows' conversation last night with the former president. Long persuaded of his complexity, reporters who have covered him and policymakers who have worked for him - scarred obsessives all -- were comparing notes last night, parsing phrases and seeking shades of meaning with a kind of nostalgic and Talmudic delight. Here's what some of us suspected lurked further down in his remarks:

That was a shot at Al Gore: On the subject of climate change, Clinton watchers were struck by what he said and failed to say about Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Clinton did not employ the sorts of superlatives he would have normally used for the work of an ally that reflected his own point of view. And he went on to observe that the movie would not be as compelling if oil were not at $70 a barrel (he was arguing that Democrats should make the case we may be running out of oil). Later, he digressed to present a detailed chronology of Hillary Clinton's speechifying about climate change, to claim she had developed her own detailed position long before the movie appeared. He presented this as a complaint against the press, which he said treated her public position as an act of me-tooism to steal Gore's thunder (to use a climatological metaphor). But press-bashing was surely not the only goal.

That sounded like a hint that we went to war for Israel: When Jim asked how the Democrats should handle the Iraq war, Clinton replied in part, "We ought to be whipped, us Democrats, if we allow our differences over what to do now in Iraq to divide us" instead of sticking it to the Republicans. He segued into a discussion of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman's position in favor of going to war, noting how it squared with the view of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others that Saddam Hussein was such a menace he should be removed regardless of whether he had WMD. Then, out of the blue, came this: "That was also the position of every Israeli politician I knew, by the way." Huh? Where did that come from?

It may have been true - though I knew some Israeli politicians with doubts about the war - but what did it have to do with the rest of his comments? Was it an accusation of dual loyalty? (And how, by any stretch, did it conform with his own exhortation not to let Democrats' differences on the war divide them?) One longtime and acute observer of Clinton, whom I won't name here, suggested to me that, as is his tendency, Clinton was looking to please people he spotted in the crowd before him - in this case, seated in the front rows, several representatives of Arab nations, including Queen Noor of Jordan.

That old dog sure will hunt: Knowing his audience, as always, Clinton played the good ol' boy with even more vigor than usual. He clearly, and rightly, concluded that the elite crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival would groove to some down-home philosophizin'. I counted three dogs hunting through his remarks and one old cow being milked ("I don't know how long they can milk that old cow without the milk running dry," he said, referring to Republicans running on flag-burning and accusations Democrats are weak-kneed.) Each passing critter sent a ripple of delight through the room.

That old dog is Clinton: He remains the preeminent politician of our times. He made the case against the Republicans more sharply than I've heard any presently practicing Democrat do it. I was reminded of one of the reasons he is effective: He loves the fight so much. Where other Democrats, including the party's standard-bearers (read: Carter, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton) too often convey a sense that politics is dirty and deadly, something they must stoop reluctantly to engage in out of a sense of duty to the nation, Clinton treats it as a rollicking adventure and a game - and, in the end, it's HIS approach that elevates politics rather than trivializing it. It's his approach that treats it as the important arena it is.

George W. Bush has some of this quality as well, but he lacks Clinton's reach and depth as a strategist. That last fact, I think, helps explain why Clinton returned so often to Karl Rove in his remarks. Yes, Rove is appearing here at Aspen, and is a fatter, easier target than a sitting president. But my guess is that Clinton also identifies in him a comparable chess player on the Republican side. In response to an excellent question from Jim, Clinton gave a list of barbed questions that Aspen attendees should put to Rove (it will be very interesting to see if they are in fact asked). One of these questions drew on a repeated criticism he made last night, of the White House's outing of Valerie Plame. The question was whether, if Clinton were president, and his chief strategist, Rahm Emanuel, leaked the name of a CIA agent, Rove would or would not send ever Republican senator to the floor to call Emanuel a traitor and to say the president had disgraced his office.

Then, being Clinton, he could not resist answering the question himself, with a chuckle in his voice. See Ross's post for the quote.

Clinton made what for him was a classic thrust at the Republicans - classic for its attempt to inflict damage without seeming cruel, to present him as a reluctant truth-teller rather than an attack dog: "They believe policy should be made by ideology and rammed through by attack," he said, before adding, "It doesn't make them bad people - that's just what they believe."

He still can't help himself: He tried to compliment George W. Bush a couple of times but couldn't entirely pull it off. At the outset of the conversation, he noted that Bush had committed more money than Clinton to combatting AIDS in Africa. But as he gave with one hand he took away with other, observing that Bush got far more money out of the "Republican Congress" than Clinton did.

The Democrats really don't have a coherent position on health care: Ezekiel Emanuel, a biothethicist and oncologist at NIH and Rahm's brother, challenged Clinton's claim that the Democrats had their act together, saying he often pressed his brother, without satisfactory results, on to describe their health-care policy. In the old days, Clinton would have turned a fire hose on Zeke, soaking him in policy detail until he gasped for mercy. But last night, Clinton just asserted that the Democrats did have a plan and that it wasn't getting covered by the press, and then he went back to assaulting the Republicans. Of two possibilities here - Clinton has lost touch with domestic policy, or the Democrats do not have a coherent position - I would bet on the second.

He is still haunted by Rwanda: Andrea Mitchell asked him about Darfur, recalling Clinton's own inaction during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In Kigali once, I heard Clinton make the claim that people like him, in offices all over the world, simply didn't know what was happening as the killing spread. This was preposterous, of course. We all knew. Last night, he advanced other reasons for what he called his "mistake" in Rwanda: The fallout from the failed peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and his focus at the time on developing international support to deal with Bosnia. "We never even had a talk about it," he said of Rwanda. I consulted a former Clinton foreign policy advisor, who said Bosnia was not yet a factor, and that there was considerable discussion of Rwanda within the administration. Somalia did weigh heavily. This former adviser also argued that stopping the genocide would have required a huge military operation. But, he said, one option was not really considered: The idea of creating a few havens for Tutsi, to protect them from the Hutu onslaught.

I don't think the flimsy rationales are evidence that Clinton is successfully fooling himself; they more likely show that he is truly haunted by this.

The Atlantic @ Aspen